Luis Carrera and his girlfriend were roused from their sleep just before midnight by a rumbling that shook the walls and knocked paintings to the floor of their apartment.
As the panicked couple peered out an open window, they stared into a pitch-black expanse where street lights and house lamps were extinguished and nothing was visible. But the horror they could not see, they could hear: tumbling boulders crashing through concrete and wooden homes, screeching steel from cars that were being twisted and flattened. Shrieks and cries for help rang out across the hillside, somewhat muffled by the roar of rock slides and mudslides and flood waters pouring down from above.
For nine harrowing hours on that night of Dec. 15, the chaos raged on. By morning's light, a panorama of colossal destruction appeared in and around this northern coastal town 45 miles north of Caracas at the foot of Venezuela's Avila mountain range. Loosened by torrential rains, tons of mud and debris had poured down on Macuto and the region in a relentless stream of death.
"The flows down the mountain demolished homes like dominoes, . . . like they were rolled over one by one by a loud steam roller," said Carrera. "I cannot forget the way everything shook in the darkness. I cannot stop hearing the cries of children."
Throughout Venezuela's storm-ravaged northern Caribbean coast, survivors are grappling with the memories of the night last week when drenching rains unleashed the worst natural disaster in the modern history of this South American nation. In recounting the sights, sounds and feelings they faced during nature's onslaught, Venezuelans in dozens of interviews have provided chilling testimony to the ferocity with which the storm devastated communities, killed thousands of people and left the country in a crisis of withering proportions.
Government officials estimated that over the course of two days, more than 23,000 homes were destroyed by raging river torrents and thick sheets of mud, rock and refuse, leaving 140,000 people homeless. While authorities said the extent of the death toll may never be fully known, they have estimated that between 5,000 and 30,000 of Venezuela's 23 million people have died.
In Cojo, a poor to middle-class Macuto neighborhood, local officials said 500 to 1,000 people are believed to have perished. Like most of the victims along the densely populated coast, they are thought to have been buried alive under flows from surrounding mountainsides. While the accuracy of the death counts remains in question, one thing is certain: The swiftness of the destruction gave people little time to respond.
Following two weeks of persistent rains along the northern coast, Venezuelans received no official warnings about the Dec. 15 and 16 downpours from the government of National Civil Defense agency, several hours before the landslides and flooding began, issued a statement that mentioned the need to "declare a state of emergency for reasons of nature." However, the advisory did not recommend an evacuation of the coastal region.
Within minutes of the avalanche and flash floods, Carrera's 67-year-old mother was trapped in her house in Cojo, trembling in the darkness as she searched for her blood-pressure medication. Neighbors, as well as her son, tried to come to her rescue, but could not.
"Maria, Maria, Maria, the river, the river is mad," one fleeing neighbor yelled to her as she sat helplessly with her husband in their dwelling that was battered but never gave way.
"We just sat there in the darkness listening to the noise and the smashing and hoping we would survive," the woman's husband, Vicente Alcivar, 55, said. "It was the longest night. I drank coffee after coffee and smoked cigarettes, cigarettes and more cigarettes."
Carrera remembered hearing the desperate voices of people seeking any kind of help they could get. "There was one voice that yelled, 'Help me, God. I am dying in the water.' "
Carrera, an accountant, remained in his apartment with his girlfriend, talking with his mother by telephone, which worked during much of the storm. His own high-rise was hit by several boulders and its lobby was destroyed, but the structure remained intact.
By about 9 a.m., stunned residents flocked into the streets to survey the damage. The town's main thoroughfare, Avenida de la Playa, had vanished, turned into a small river littered with mounds of crushed concrete, dead horses and dogs. The ground in Cojo had risen by about five feet because of the vast amounts of mud that had settled.
Rows of stores, including a bakery, a pharmacy and a restaurant, were reduced to scraps of concrete. Cars buried nose first protruded from the ground. The steps leading up to a steel overpass were sheared away.
Four hours later, ominous rumblings were heard again and massive flows of mud and rock and rushing waters from the Cojo River again began crashing down on the neighborhood.
"In less than two days," Carrera said, "this place where my grandfather of 82 years has lived his whole life has been changed spiritually and physically. This is now a place haunted by desperation."
CAPTION: Los Corales, in Venezuela's Vargas state, just north of the capital Caracas, was one of many neighborhoods devastated by flooding and mudslides.